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general assembly

Justice system overhaul bill takes next step

Includes proportionate sentencing

– A long-term effort to rein in state prison costs and reduce recidivism passed the Senate 46-4 Wednesday.

The overhaul touches virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system – including drug sentences, prison credit time and local community corrections programs – and has taken several years to craft.

The bill isn’t effective until July 2014 as legislators think they might have to tweak the details of the bill.

It’s also unclear whether more funds will be made available to local officials to cope with additional probation and community corrections needs.

“This is a bill in process,” said Sen. Brent Steele, R-Bedford.

“The rest of the flesh and bones will be filled in on this skeleton in the next legislative session. This gives us a framework to work from.”

All local senators supported House Bill 1006, which goes back to the House either for acceptance or further compromise.

The goals of the massive measure are to make punishment more proportional to the crime, force the most serious offenders to serve longer sentences and divert drug addicts and low-level offenders from state prisons to local treatment and supervision programs to reduce recidivism.

Steele said it increases the number of felony levels from the current four to six and spells out new credit-time rules for early release.

All felons would have to serve 75 percent of their sentences, as opposed to the current 50 percent. A few severe crimes would require 85 percent.

At the same time, the bill is designed to give local judges more discretion over when to suspend prison sentences for some crimes.

An amendment put in the bill Tuesday took away some of that discretion by putting back in minimum mandatory sentences for most felonies when the person has a prior unrelated felony.

Department of Correction officials have expressed concern that changes to that provision as well as the increased time served might lead to even higher prison populations than previously expected.

Steele said a legislative fiscal statement estimates the prison offender population as holding steady until at least 2022.

“It’s impossible to predict how this is going to play out, I would suggest, because we have no idea what the main crimes will be in our society in the year 2022,” he said.

Steele said the best guess from experts is the state won’t need to build a new prison in the foreseeable future.

The bill also lowers some drug penalties, including reducing the size of the “drug-free zones” around schools. Marijuana possession had been dropped substantially before being bumped up a bit in committee due to concerns expressed by Gov. Mike Pence.

Under the bill, the marijuana penalties are still lower than in current law.